Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Sermon on Hellbound

by Adam Graham

Author’s Note—I’m not a blogger by any means; in fact, this is my first blog post ever. I am a preacher though, and I can craft a sermon about anything. Just ask me, then sit back and watch.

One system of plotting a sermon goes like this: a problem exists in the world; a problem exists in the biblical text; the text resolves its problem (or at least suggests one), and the preacher offers resolution for the problem outside the text. I’m going to use this plot as a way to review film and take the role of preacher again as to offer resolution.

Kevin Miller’s film Hellbound? essentially follows the pattern aforementioned. The movie has a problem outside the text. Many people believe in the existence of hell as a place of eternal destruction. He opens with a conversation with members from Westboro Baptist Church during the ten year anniversary of 9-11. These people are the same ones who protest military funerals as a means of informing America about the sin of homosexuality.

Miller asks honest questions concerning God, hell, and love. They respond by doubting his faith and likening it to the pansy (incidentally, one of my favorite flowers). One of the most vocal protestors asserts that 99.9999% of the population will spend their eternity in hell.

Miller meets exorcists and a church that operates a “Hell House” for the purpose of bringing teenagers to repentance. This belief in hell can bring out the worst in people and other commentators in the film cite its use by believers to act on their retributive justice and vengeance even if only theologically. Likewise, it paints a certain portrait of a kind of God that Miller (as well as I) is not sure exists.

His attempt to answer that question using the text brings the problems of the biblical text to light about this issue. While he consults with pastors and theologians, it quickly dawns that the Bible is not consistent about hell.

This is truth and not movie spin. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament if you prefer) casts little vision about the afterlife. All the writers fear the grave or sheol, but they do not speak of it as a place of consciousness. The eternal-torment-folks point to Daniel 12:2 for support, but the universalists offer another interpretation and I think that the book suffers from too much apocalyptic reading—look at Daniel (visions at least) in light of the Maccabees.

The New Testament should surely give succor to the torment camp. Jesus mentions weeping and gnashing of teeth and warns his followers to fear those who can cast the body into hell (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:5). However, Jesus also says that when he is lifted up, all people will be drawn to him (John 12:32). The writer of 1 Timothy makes universalist comments when in 4:10 he states that the living God is the savior of all people, especially all those who believe.

Because of the problem in the text, no one can really offer a definitive answer and each camp that Miller interviews stand by their vision of the textual witness. Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle, compares the controversy to state borders versus national borders. His state borders include those matters where difference of belief can occur, but can still be recognized as Christian. Changing doctrine too much leads to a national boundary, and Driscoll et al view that as a departure from Christianity. (Then he lapses into some dichotomy between common and particular grace, but that’s another story).

Miller’s attempts to resolve the hell issue splinter into various paths. Each interviewee takes the problem in a different direction. Those subjects who support eternal torment find that any other explanation proves God’s revelation false. Or, God cannot practice God’s justice without the concept.

The movie presents a brief treatment of annihilationism without having anyone in the film who espouses the concept. Annihilationism contends that the righteous will live with God in the eschaton, while the unrighteous simply cease to exist.

Universalists that appear in the film resolve the issue in various ways. Some approached from the justice issue and see God’s justice as restorative as opposed to retributive or punitive. Michael Hardin, founder of Preaching Peace, views hell as problematic since it points to a God who is a violent god and turns every human being into a ha-Satan, the Satan who acts more like a prosecuting attorney than as Lord of Darkness.

Frank Schaeffer, son of evangelical extraordinaire Francis Schaeffer, disavows the question and moves to what we can know and his experience of love in his grandchildren’s eyes. At the end, Miller’s film does a better job of asking questions than providing answers. This means he does not resolve the issue inside or outside of any text. So much for this sermon.

Sermons in my tradition end with an invitation mostly because most of the people want to avoid hell. Therefore, I end this review with an invitation, but fear not, this is no proselytizing.
This film uncovers more than just hell. It launches into the questions of what we know and how we know it. It even moves into the realm of how our beliefs shape a particular God-image.

See this movie.

The reactions of groups like Westboro Baptist and even the universalists to the other side show the communication breakdown that exists in contemporary belief. Fundamentalists exist among conservative and liberal camps alike. Moderation loses ground in our society. What can we do to alleviate the polarization?

Watch this movie and be willing to reflect on the core of belief.

Adam Graham is a preacher and a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He has a glorious beard and is a former parade Grand Marshal.

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